In 2010, ten years ago, Bill, Natalie (age 13 then) and I took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and St. Helena Island, South Carolina. We were immersing ourselves in history. It was a two-hour drive from Charleston to the Penn Center, one of the places we wanted to visit. We had to rent a car to get there. As we got closer, we drove on a long road with sea waters lapping up almost to the edge of it. I couldn’t believe how we were almost level with the water. My head was hanging out the window like we see dogs do, mesmerized by the water so close it seemed like if my arm were just a little longer, I could touch it.
The Penn Center is the former site of the Penn School, one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved individuals. Founded in 1862 by Quaker and Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania, the first three teachers included Laura Matilda Towne, an abolitionist missionary from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Ellen Murray, a Quaker teacher and Charlotte Forten, born into a wealthy free black family in Philadelphia.
We also knew it was where Dr. Martin Luther King found a safe haven in 1964, to rest and write, after one of many arrests/jail sentences. No road existed at that time, so he was transported by rowboat to the Penn Center in the middle of the night. No one knew he was there. This was during a time when the KKK would have been active in the area.
When we arrived at the Penn Center, I stepped out of the car and stopped to notice the ancient oaks, the sound of birds, and the quiet. I had walked only a few steps before I saw a magical sight. A pile of leaves started to gather in a circle and then they began to swirl around and around. It was as if they had turned into a beautiful long brown skirt. I didn’t move. It felt like a message. This is what I heard: This is a place of peace and faith. We see you. Learn our story so that you can share it with others.
The Penn Center became part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor established by the U.S. Congress in 2006. The Gullahs are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the region as early as the 1600s. They are now recognized as the oldest African American group to successfully preserve their language, religious customs, and cultural identity within the United States of America. The Penn Center is one of three National Historic Districts in South Carolina, and the only one that is African American. The Penn Center continues to be a vital part of its surrounding community, continuing in its legacy of cultural preservation.
This week, my donation to help fill in the holes of history goes to the Penn Center.